Dak Prescott: "It's still hard to swallow knowing this is the last one."
The Dallas Cowboys have a lot of problems, issues and concerns to address this off-season, starting with the quarterback.
There is not a Dak Prescott problem, but there is at least a Dak Prescott concern.
Dak was not bad in 2017, nor was he all that good. Dak was quite average, and so was his team.
The Cowboys defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 6-0 on Sunday in what historians are already calling one of the “least watchable” sporting events in the past five centuries.
Dak improved to 22-10 as an NFL starting quarterback, but ... child, please.
The Cowboys are a run-first team, but the only way they can become a legit Super Bowl threat is if Dak becomes a better passer.
Right now, he’s a mature, responsible professional with talent, and an average passer and a middle-tier NFL quarterback. You will have a hard time finding a Super Bowl team that does not have a top-tier NFL passer.
Football can be highly complicated, but the following is not — the teams with the best quarterbacks win more games.
Feel free to blame receivers Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams. If you want to fire offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, the floor is yours.
The Cowboys will never fire coach Jason Garrett, so suspend that fantasy.
Make all of these changes and unless Dak can become a better version of himself and mature into a more efficient, and accurate, vertical passer, the Cowboys are on Highway 8-8 for forever.
A better passer can make average guys look pretty good, and Dak just never did that in 2017.
I asked him if he suffered the cliched “sophomore slump” that so many of us media scum projected he would endure.
“If you want want to call it that; there were ups and downs,” Dak said after the game. “I think I played some of the best ball of my career this year, and obviously I played some of the worst ball of my career this year. You can call it what you want. I’ll learn from it. Call it a learning year. It’s a winning season. We’re 9-7. We’re going to grow off that.”
He better. Unless Dak becomes a better, more advanced version, of himself in 2018, and ’19 and beyond, not only is in he in trouble, but so are the Cowboys.
In no way are the Cowboys in the market for a quarterback, but in no way is the franchise working on a six-year extension with their current starter.
Dak’s touchdowns went down, and interceptions went up. His yards passing per game dropped by 20. His completion percentage went down, while the sacks went up. And that quarterback rating was waaaay down.
In virtually every statistic Dak regressed from his rookie season, but there is no more troubling number than this: 6.8.
Dak’s passes averaged a puny 6.8 yards per pass attempt this season, down from the impressive 8.0 his rookie year.
There was zero vertical threat this season, and Dak became just another, highly conservative, check-down quarterback. He would go through his progressions, and too often he settled for the underneath throw.
Dak did not look that much different than Andy Dalton in Cincinnati, Tyrod Taylor in Buffalo, Joe Flacco in Baltimore, Derek Carr in Oakland, or Kirk Cousins in Washington.
Their respective numbers were all OK, and it’s not a coincidence none of their teams were especially good.
“As a rookie, I don’t know if I took the true toughness and how hard and competitive this league was for granted,” Dak said. “It was much different this year.”
No argument here.
The league adjusted and here you go. His receivers were not especially good, but Dak’s adjustments weren’t enough. He never trusted Dez Bryant’s definition of “open.” Cole Beasley never could get open. Jason Witten is an underneath receiver. There is no explanation for Terrance Williams.
A better, more accurate, passer can squeeze a little more production out of this crew. Once defenses squeezed the Cowboys at the line, he never could consistently force them to loosen up.
For the Cowboys to evolve, Dak has to be better than a passer who settles for not turning the ball over. He has to complete the third-and-6 throw for 7 yards rather than 5. He has to put it through the narrow mail slot between two defenders for a touchdown.
The good news is Dak is 24. He knows how to win. He has a big arm. He has demonstrated the ability make throws like a big-time NFL quarterback, including throwing for more than 300 yards in a narrow playoff loss. He’s a good athlete. He’s a mature professional. And all quarterbacks, especially younger ones, go through troubles in some form or fashion.
“I just have to continue to get better; there is not one aspect, if I said, ‘If this improves, we’re going to be the most prolific passing offense there is,’ ” he said.
The Cowboys don’t have to become the most prolific passing team there is, but what they did in ’17 ain’t enough. He has to complete down the field throws. The end.
Nothing anybody did on Sunday, playing in a refrigerator, was going to convince anybody of anything other than they could play football without freezing to death.
A season with so much hope ended prematurely sans playoffs on Sunday, and there are plenty of problems, concerns and issues to address.
Dak Prescott isn’t a problem, nor is he an issue, but he has to be a concern.
Mac Engel: @macengelprof